A brain. An athlete. A basket case. A princess. A criminal.
For those of us alive in the ’80s, that list is an unmistakable reference to the iconic film The Breakfast Club, and you’re likely imagining Judd Nelson’s trench coat and raised fist right about now. I first watched the movie on VHS when I was a few years younger than the five high-schoolers forced to spend their Saturday morning together in detention, and I immediately loved it. For me and my friends, it was a precursor to the “Which character are you?” game we later played with Friends and Sex in the City.
I’ve seen The Breakfast Club again nearly a dozen times over the years, often in bits and pieces while flipping channels, but it wasn’t until my late 30s, as the mom of three young kids, that I discovered a surprising fact about this so-called teen flick: it’s a pretty useful parenting guide. (Forgive me, John Hughes, I’m guessing a suburban mom wasn’t your intended audience.)
From the time they’re born, we parents are certain that our kids are unique, complex beings – most likely geniuses, quite possibly future world leaders. But the outside world and the realities of daily life often force us to fall back on generalizations: my oldest child is the sensitive one; my daughter is sporty; my son is a shy kid. It happens at parent/teacher meetings, or when a grandparent asks for guidance on Christmas gifts, or even when we’re just trying to figure out which summer camp or after-school class to sign up for.
There’s nothing wrong with using our kids’ dominant personality traits or likes and dislikes as we try to navigate as parents. It does get problematic when those descriptions and labels become rigid and limiting, however.
I see frequent examples of this with my older daughter, who has historically checked off all the boxes of a “tomboy” (side note: can we all agree to ditch that word for good?). When she shows up somewhere in a dress, or gets excited about having her nails painted or a clip in her hair, people often express surprise – “That’s so not like her!” I’ve often felt surprised myself, and have made the mistake of making assumptions about what she will or won’t like based simply on her past trends.
But why should it be at all surprising that at age 5, she is developing some new tastes? I’m 30 years ahead of her, and I’m still changing my mind and evolving all the time. Also, you can still beat all the boys at handball with painted nails.
As I re-watch The Breakfast Club, I’m reminded that the adults are largely absent – referenced rather than seen on camera. But their habit of assigning stifling labels (and accompanying expectations) to their children and students is the conflict at the heart of the film. And these days, I’m no longer the teenager struggling to assert my individuality; I’m the mom seeing my kids start to do the same.
At the end of the movie, the five main characters leave behind a letter addressed to their detention supervisor – but really to all the adult oppressors in their lives. “You see us as you want to see us,” it says, “in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, and a princess, and a criminal.”
Let’s try to avoid receiving a letter like that (or text, or Tweet) in the future, and leave room for our kids to find their way in the world with as few labels attached to them as possible. Each of our children is one thing today, something else tomorrow, and completely amazing all the time.